Dan Coombs has suggested that the abstract paintings of Tomma Abts are better understood “not so much as material objects in the abstract painting tradition but as surrogate people with their own personalities. Each painting is a portrait …of something that does not yet exist“. Seeing the Tomma Abts painting at The Indiscipline of painting exhibition at the Mead Gallery, I was reminded of Coombs’ article. The painting is entitled Thiale, a first name I believe. The format looks like a portrait as does its size (48cm x 38cm).
It draws us in for closer inspection, I mean for us to inspect the painting, not the other way around, though who knows, maybe whilst I am studying it, it is also studying me? And studying is the mode of viewing that it seems to elicit. Some of the other paintings in the show need to be simply enjoyed, breathed in almost, but not this one; it seems to require close attention or study. And studying it slowly reveals the slowness of its making as evidence of corrections and underpainting becomes apparent.
It isn’t the only ‘portrait’ here. There is also the much larger scale work by Moira Dyer entitled The Vanishing Self-Portrait. There is underpainting of sorts in this one, but hardly in the sense of ‘corrections’. In the Tomma Abts I get the sense of painstaking application and revision, until the ‘correct’ form is arrived at. The Moira Dyer seems more about following a pre-determined course, and quickly. Painted in 1990, only two years before she died at the age of 34, it is balanced on a small tree trunk, rather than hanging on the wall. I could imagine it having been painted right there, the lateral brush strokes in a pale blue/grey with a slightly bluer frame painted around the edge with one blue paint run on the left hand side, that has been allowed to follow its course almost to the bottom edge. The paint looks like it was erased rather than applied, the erasing of an image of the artist perhaps, yet the brush strokes and the dimensions attesting to the artists presence, and body. She was here, and this ‘image’ is what is left of her performance, the record of it hasn’t vanished.
And in looking at these abstract portraits I am reminded of the Clare Woods exhibition at Hepworth Wakefield: The Unquiet Head, showing until 29 January. As well as the large abstract landscapes, which themselves allude to figures in rock formations, there are some smaller works of rocks that are specifically presented as portraits, a series of Idol heads. And then there is a small painting on aluminium entitled Hollow Face, a portrait ‘read into’ the negative space, a hole, or a clearing, in a hedge or some shrubs.
This also vanishes, if ever it was there, or only there because we see the absence as a presence and see in that a face. The painting is already there in ‘nature’ but always only inside the imagination, a portrait of something that is both there and not there at the same time, a visual metaphor perhaps. The Moira Dryer portrait is of an event, a performance that once took place, now a nominalisation, whereas the Abts portrait is of a ‘personality’ that exists only because it has been painted into existence.
The Unquiet Head is showing at Hepworth Wakefield until 29 January 2012